Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Story of North Korea

The capitalist press is full of horror stories about North Korea of late.  Almost every day we are bombarded with sensational stories about North Korea’s nuclear program, the test firing of its ballistic missiles and its reclusive leader, Kim Jong-Il.  And hand in glove with these sensational stories, is a steady drum beat from Washington calling the use of any means necessary to bring this rogue state to heel.

Treading a path well worn by Clinton and Bush before him, President Obama has eagerly picked up the war baton, and is enthusiastically waving it at Pyongyang.  Rare is the Democratic or Republican politician who passes up an opportunity to denounce North Korea as an source of pure evil. 

Despite all of the press coverage and all of the politicians warmongering speeches, very little truth has been uttered, and to date many American workers are probably very much in the dark about what is really happening in Northeast Asia. What are Washington’s real goals for beating the war drums?  How did this current nuclear stand off between the U.S. and North Korea come about?  What is the story of North Korea?  Because you won’t find answers to those questions on CNN or in your daily newspaper, we are going to try and share them with you.

Korea’s History

To understand the current conflict, you have to understand something about Korea’s history.  The story of the Koreans people is a long and rich one, but one of the prevailing themes of their history has been their centuries old struggle against foreign domination.  To many Koreans, the current stand off is yet another chapter in a long book of foreign meddling.

For centuries, the Koreans have fought to free their country from the rule of their more powerful neighbors, namely China and Japan.   While originally China was the main aggressor, in modern history it was Japan that most actively sought to colonize the Koreans. 

Japan’s first major invasion of Korea took place in 1592.  However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that Japan was able to definitively conquer Korea.  By this time Japan had become a rising industrial power, and in the wake of its defeat of czarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan was given the nod by the other imperial powers to gobble up Korea as war booty.  By 1910 Japan had subjugated Korea, and turned it into a colony.  While a small layer of the Korean elite were groomed to be local lackeys for the Japanese occupiers, the vast majority of Koreans were treated like mere slaves – forced to grow food, mine minerals and manufacture cheap goods for the Japanese homeland.

This brutal occupation was met by a number of popular rebellions, that unfortunately were all ultimately unsuccessful. 

In 1925, in the wake of the inspiring Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Korean resistance gave birth to an embryonic communist movement.  Forced to work underground, many of its early activists were killed by the Japanese occupiers.  The brutal repression by the authorities forced the young communist movement to take up arms in self-defense.  Small bands of revolutionaries around the country came together to try and defend their communities, and from time to time to strike out at police and military installations.  The Japanese response was to organize sweeping military offensives that drove many of these revolutionaries to the far north of the country, and over the border into neighboring Manchuria – a region in China

While hundreds of thousands of Koreans found themselves in Manchuria, it provided no refuge, as the advancing Japanese imperialists were hot on their heals.  Using the deposed ruling family of the old Chinese empire as their puppets, the Japanese set up a puppet state in Manchuria that they dubbed Manchukuo.  The presence of hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers, and a government filled with Japanese rather than Manchurian officials, made clear who really ruled “Manchukuo”.

The Korean resistance to Japanese occupation though continued, both within the Korean peninsula, and in Manchuria.  Within Manchuria Korean communists, soon found themselves not only hounded by the Japanese, but also often by the Chinese Communists, who looked on Koreans as possible collaborators of the Japanese, and who killed thousands of them in various purges.  Despite this, the Stalin led Communist International insisted that the Korean communists submit to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and as a result the bands of Korean resistance fighters in Manchuria came under Mao Zedong’s nominal control.

One of the most important leaders of these Korean resistance bands was Kim Il-Sung – the future leader of North Korea.  While Kim Il-Sung’s feats were later grossly exaggerated when he become North Korea’s leader, it is true that he led one of the more successful bands of revolutionaries, and engaged in a number of armed actions with the Japanese.

By the end of the 1930s Kim Il-Sung, and most Korean communist leaders, found themselves forced to take refuge in Soviet Siberia after a series of massive Japanese military offensives against them.  Here the Korean fighters would sit out most of the rest of the Second World War, as the Soviets were hesitant to anger the Japanese by letting the Koreans use the USSR as a base of operations.  Not until the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in August of 1945 did Kim Il-Sung and company get to cross the border again, and then it was as part of the baggage train of the Soviet armies that quickly occupied Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the final few weeks of the war before Japan surrendered.

Creation of North Korea

Once the war ended, the Allied powers decided to divide the Korean peninsula between the North, which would be occupied by the Soviets, and the South, that would be occupied by the United States.  No consideration was given to the will of the Korean people, and despite their decades of heroic resistance against the Japanese, they weren’t even nominally consulted on the matter.

Both the Soviets and the U.S. quickly set about creating puppet governments in their new protectorates.  Unlike the U.S. though, the Soviet army soon withdrew from North Korea, leaving a new regime headed by Kim Il-Sung in place.

Kim Il-Sung’s regime in many ways resembled the new Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe.  Ostensibly they were multi-party “people’s democracies” in which the Communist Parties were simply part of coalition governments, but in reality the Stalinists were in firm control.  The other parties that made up the North Korean government, such as the Chongdois Chongu Party and the Social Democratic Party  were soon reduced to hollow shells with little autonomy and even less influence.  They became little more than window dressings.  Similarly, within the Korean Communist Party (later renamed the Korean Workers’ Party), Kim Il-Sung quickly pushed out any potential rivals and assumed undisputed control of the party and the government.

Despite the growing repressiveness of the Stalinist regime in the North, the Communist Party continued to have broad support in the U.S. puppet state in the South.  The Communist Party counted hundreds of thousands of members and sympathizers, and despite the U.S. occupiers best efforts to ban and repress the party, it continued to grow.  Already beginning in 1945 it was organizing armed resistance in a number of parts of the country.  Some of these guerilla battles involved more up to tens of thousands of South Korean revolutionaries taking on U.S. occupation forces and attacking pro-Japanese landlords and other collaborators.

Back in the North, with Stalin’s active support, Kim Il-Sung was rapidly building up his military forces.  In 1950, in a bid to re-unite the Korean people, the North Korean army invaded the South.  This attack come on the heals of a series of skirmishes and incursions between the North and South Korean militaries.  At the same time the North invaded, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans rose up against the U.S. occupation.  The result was the near total collapse of the Syngman Rhee regime in Seoul which was forced to flee while the U.S. military itself was nearly ejected from the peninsula.  Within the span of only a few weeks U.S. forces had been pushed back to a tiny corner of the peninsula around the city of Pusan.

While one can criticize the tactics used by the North Koreans to re-unify their people, the fact remains that re-unification was nearly universally supported.  The Syngman Rhee regime, comprised of numerous Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese occupation, was extremely unpopular.  It ruled only through U.S. military backing.  The rejection of the majority of the South Korean people of this state of affairs was powerfully demonstrated by the popular uprising in support of the Northern invasion, and the large scale defections of many South Korean soldiers to the North. 

The will of the Korean people however mattered little to the imperialists holding court in Washington D.C.  President Truman and his generals quickly mobilized reinforcements for the beleaguered troops trapped in Pusan, and then launched a massive amphibious landing behind North Korean lines, forcing the North Koreans to retreat.  The U.S. military, joined by a number of other pro-imperialist armies (British, South African, Turkish, French, Canadian, Australian, Greek, Dutch, Thai, Belgian, New Zealander, Luxembourgian, Columbian, Ethiopian and Filipino) under the guise of the United Nations, pursued the North Koreans past the former border and into the North.  Aided by devastating carpet bombings and massive use of napalm, the United Nations forces literally devastated the North.  Its cities were literally leveled – with whole neighborhoods left with no buildings standing.  Tens of thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled in terror before the advancing U.N. forces.

Intending to completely conquer North Korea, the imperialists were dealt a stunning blow in 1951 when an army of Chinese soldiers came to the aid of the North Koreans, and changed the course of the war yet again.  U.S. and U.N. forces were pushed back down the peninsula, back to a line near the original border – where the war would drag on for another two years in the form of bloody trench warfare.

In the end the imperialists had to cry “uncle” and agree to a ceasefire.  This represented a partial victory for the Korean people – but the cost in lives and destruction had been astronomical – the peninsula and its people were left divided.

In the wake of the war, the U.S. poured significant resources into rebuilding South Korea, and supported a string of brutal dictators who vigorously repressed the labor, socialist and student movements.  The North Koreans, in comparison, received far less reconstruction aid from the Soviets and Chinese.  Nevertheless the North was able to slowly rebuild.  Benefiting from having most of the peninsula’s mineral resources, and having been the site of most of the industries that the Japanese had built during their occupation, the North Korean economy was able to boast significantly higher growth and output compared to the South throughout the 50s, 60s and into the 1970s.

During this time North Korea as also careful to remain neutral in the political rift that developed between the Chinese and Russian Stalinists during the Sino-Soviet split that began in the late 1950s.

It was during this time that Kim Il-Sung and his co-horts first put forth their famous “Juche” theory in 1955.  Juche preached self-reliance and independence at all costs. It made a virtue out of autarky. While initially it was described as a Korean addition to Marxist thought, by 1972 Kim Il-Sung replaced all references to Marxism-Leninism in North Korea’s constitution with Juche, and it was soon described as having “superceded” Marxism-Leninism.  While still referring to themselves as socialists, the North Korean Stalinists rejected Marxism and Leninism as European notions.  In essence Juche became the ideological framework for a particularly nationalistic, and even xenophobic, form of Stalinism.

Despite what it called itself though, North Korea remained a degenerated workers’ state.  Capitalism had been expropriated, but the workers had been denied democratic control of the society by a self-serving, parasitic bureaucracy surrounding Kim Il-Sung.

North Korean Famine

By the 1980s it had become clear that South Korea had economically surpassed North Korea.  By brutally repressing labor and students, often at the point of gunpoint, the South Korean ruling class had succeeded in turning their country into an up and coming economic power – one of the so called “Asian Tigers”.  South Korean capitalists, taking advantage of cheap labor, generous U.S. aid and Japanese investment, were able to become major producers in the field of steel, ship building, automobiles and electronics, among other things. 

Meanwhile North Korean industry was unable to advance beyond a 1960s level of technology.  Internationally isolated, things went from bad to worse when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991.  Cut off from the subsidized oil that the Soviets had provided, energy poor North Korea went into a serious crisis.  Many factories were idled for lack of energy, and electricity blackouts became common.  Agriculture was similarly affected by a decrease in the amount of fertilizer and other chemical inputs that North Korea’s failing industries were able to provide.  But these problems would be dwarfed by the natural disasters that were to follow.

In 1995 a devastating series of floods destroyed thousands of acres of crop land, knocked out roads, dams and railroad tracks.  There was a drop of 50% to 75% in the nation’s harvest, and matters were made worse by an ensuing drought.  Food, which had already become scarce in the early 90s as a result of the economic crisis, now became almost impossible to obtain.  By 1996 the country was in the grips of full on famine, and it’s estimated that between 1996 and 1999 anywhere from 200,000 to 3 million people died.

The response of the international community was slow and woefully inadequate.  The U.S. likes to brag that when news of the famine hit, only China stepped forward and offered more aid.  Given that the total amount of aid given in 1995 amounted to only $8 million dollars, less then the cost of half a dozen cruise missiles, the U.S. should be ashamed.  Despite their claims to the contrary, the slow and checkered reaction of the imperialists to this devastating human catastrophe was clearly a case of using food as a weapon.

Nuclear & Missile Stand Off

Kim Il-Sung, who had ruled North Korea since its founding, died in 1994 at the beginning of the crisis.  He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, who continued his father’s absurd cult of personality which reached such extremes that it would have made even Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong blush.

Kim Jong-Il inherited a state in near total economic ruin.  The state run economy had broken down to such a point that the state no longer even bothered to try and nationally distribute food, requiring instead that each local area become completely self-sufficient in food production or starve. 

Kim Jong-Il’s response to this crisis was to rely almost exclusively on the military.  He put forth a new ideology called Songun.  Songun, which is meant to supercede the old Juche philosophy, is based on the notion that the military, not the working class, is the revolutionary foundation of the state, and that all resources necessary should go to it. 

It was during this time that North Korea began to accelerate its nuclear program.  Begun in 1980s with a small Soviet research reactor, the North Koreans went on to build their own primitive reactor in Yongbyon in an attempt to reduce their need to import petroleum. 

It was also during this time that the North Korean regime dramatically ramped up its arms sales.  North Korea had built up a significant arms industry way back in the aftermath of the Korean War.  While much of their output was of obsolete Soviet and Chinese designs, much of it reverse engineered with little support from either, they came to produce a wide range of military equipment – from small arms all the way up to tanks and even submarines.  They also succeeded in reverse engineering old Soviet Scud missiles, from which they went on to produce a whole family of single and multi-stage missiles. 

While crude by modern standards, North Korean missiles were cheap, and available to any regime willing to pay for them.  As a result, during the 1990s the North Koreans became one of the world’s leading exporters of short and medium range ballistic missiles, with many of them going to countries on the U.S. bad side, like Iran and Syria.

The combination of North Korea developing a nuclear industry, together with ballistic missiles, sent Washington into a tizzy.  Nothing infuriates imperialists more than when third world countries dare to arm themselves with weapons that might actually be able to deter imperialist bullying.  Despite the fact that the U.S. has for decades openly kept nuclear weapons in South Korea, and on naval vessels in the region, the U.S. hypocritically denounced the North Koreans for their nuclear program.

The North Koreans insisted that they had the right to defend themselves, and indicated that what they were after was a non-aggression pact from the U.S., a nuclear free Korean peninsula, and energy aid.

For our part, Socialist Action agrees that North Korea has the right to develop nuclear energy, and nuclear weapons for the matter, as much as we find both things distasteful.  Given the threat that the U.S. poses, North Korea has the right to defend itself, and to create a deterrent to possible aggression.

The imperialists could not disagree more though!  They cried bloody murder.  After a whole series of United Nations resolutions and attempts to further isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically, in 1994 the Clinton administration however agreed to sit down with the North Koreans and work out a compromise.  Frustrated by its inability to stop the North Korean regime, the U.S. imperialists offered them a deal.  In exchange for shutting down their nuclear reactor, and agreeing to allow inspectors in, the U.S. would provide a certain amount of petroleum and assistance in providing alternative nuclear technology that could be used for generating electricity, but not weapons grade material.

This deal held for several years, but then the U.S. broke the deal.  It began to reduce the amount of oil delivered to North Korea, Then under the Bush administration the spigot was eventually cut off completely.  The North Koreans then restarted work on their reactor, and in 2006 tested a nuclear bomb.

What has followed since then has basically been a broken record where the U.S. screams and hollers, and the North Koreans holler back.  Very little new is ever said or proposed.  Since  2009 the North Koreans have tested another bomb, and have test fired a number of missiles, and the U.S. has responded with more efforts to tighten the noose around North Korea’s neck.

The U.S. Campaign Against North Korea

The recent escalation has resulted in the U.S. and U.N. saying that they will begin boarding and searching North Korean ships suspected of transporting arms for export, which the U.N. sanctions now prohibit.  The North Koreans have stated that any boardings of its ships will be taken as a declaration of war.

Meanwhile back home, American workers are being fed a steady diet of anti-North Korean horror stories.  While careful to never mention the U.S. violations of its agreements with North Korea, or the presence of U.S. nukes in the region, we hear a steady torrent of stories about North Korea’s threats and deceptions.  A considerable degree of fear is being drummed up about North Korean missiles, and a possible nuclear attack, reminiscent of the war mongering carried about against Iraq in 2001, and against Iran today.

Also, the capitalist press has taken a particular fancy to running stories about the personal life and lifestyle of Kim Jong-Il.  We have been regaled with stories ranging from his alleged love for orgies and Swedish blondes, to claims that he is personally the world’s largest purchaser of Hennessey brandy.  Some of these stories are rather dubious – (The Hennessey brandy claim is questionable.  North Korea is one of the few nations that still maintains an old tradition of giving and expecting expensive gifts during diplomatic missions, and as such it imports a considerable amount of luxury wines and other goods that it then givens out as gifts to foreign leaders and diplomats on their birthdays, or on other special occasions.  This is a more likely explanation of North Korea’s brandy imports than some insatiable appetite for it by Kim Jong-Il).  It’s worth keeping in mind that one of the stock and trades of U.S. imperialism is to demonize the leaders of rival nations.  And at the end of the day, regardless of whether these stories are true of not, they are a distraction from the real issues, and in no way constitute a legitimate justification for Washington’s unrelenting campaign against North Korea.

There is no denying the fact that North Korea is indeed a brutal Stalinist dictatorship that represses its own people and puts the interest of the ruling bureaucracy and its armed forces above all else.  Nevertheless, it is not the job of the United States to police the Korean peninsula.  The world's major manufacturer, distributor and user of weapons of mass destruction, of the nuclear, chemical and biological varieties, has no standing in our view to make demands on any nation.  It has no right to dictate the internal policy of any country, period. Only the Korean people themselves have the right to determine their country’s policies, and overthrow their government – both North and South.  It is the Korean people alone who can create a just solution to the problems they face, on both sides of the DMZ. 

And it also needs to be pointed out that not only does U.S. imperialism not have the right to intervene, but that its bully tactics are not meant to improve the lot of the Korean people, or protect them from nuclear war.  Rather its policies are geared towards increasing its own power and position in East Asia to the detriment of the working people of the region.

While we do not lend any political support to the North Korean regime, Socialist Action unconditionally defends North Korea against any and all U.S. aggression. We reject the notion that imperialism has any role to play what so ever in the region.  We call on all anti-war activists to join us in opposing all U.S. and U.N. military, economic and diplomatic moves against North Korea.  Hands Off North Korea!  Self-determination for the Korean People!

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